Helping A Friend With Marriage Problems
Dear Dr. Bill,
My cousin has been married 15 years and has two children. Her career has required several moves that have been hard for her husband. She says “We don’t talk” and feels sad they “aren’t lovers anymore”. Her husband doesn’t have time for counseling and she says she won’t go alone. My question is, how can I help? I know them both to be reasonable, loving and caring people. Is there anything I can do? Is it possible or advisable to try to “help” other people’s marriages?
– Concerned Cousin
I am so glad you wrote, as this is such a common problem. To begin with, your cousin trusted you enough to share some very personal information. She may well listen to you, and how you respond could matter a great deal.
I believe that most people, including the vast majority of therapists and Pastors would tell you that your job with your cousin is to remain a neutral supporter. Their counsel would be to listen to her, try to be supportive of her, but above all respect that she must decide whether to stay married or not.
And I think that advice is just bull.
Your cousin is teetering on the precipice of divorce. She is hurting and weary of a marriage that is badly broken. She wants more than anything to escape the pain. She may be getting ready to make a decision that will impact generations. You can’t tell her what to do, but you can be firmly pro-marriage. You may be just the person that God has put in her path to “speak the truth in love” to provide the hope and support she needs. There is a great popular expression that “friends don’t let friends drive drunk”. There ought to be an expression that friends don’t let friends divorce without helping them fight for their marriage and encouraging them to leave no stone unturned before making such a decision.
Your cousin likely fears that she has only two choices. In choice A she continues to live in the misery of a broken distant marriage, and in choice B she gets divorced. Neither choice looks great but over time, people begin to rationalize the choice for divorce. You can help her see that there is always a choice C. Choice C is healing, growth and change. In every marriage I have counseled, there are two people making mistakes. Two people who have been a bit bruised by life and are bouncing off of their spouse in unloving and unhealthy ways. Your cousin is certainly one such spouse. While it is regretful that her husband is not yet ready for counseling, that is out of her control. She can go to work on what she can control. She can work on her part. Frankly, she needs to do that whether she stays married or not. If she is ever to have a healthy relationship, she needs to understand the part of her that has contributed to the state of this marriage. In our practice, we call it “marriage counseling for one”. This is a surprise to most people, but marriage is a complex chemical reaction and if one part changes, the marriage will change. If your cousin is willing to work on her part, the marriage will change. I have often seen one spouse come to counseling and have the other spouse follow later. In marriage counseling for one, we are very careful not to villainize or alienate the non-attending spouse. We focus on the parts the attending spouse can control and what they need to change. We, as individuals, have far more power to change our marriages than we realize.
Finally, your cousin has two precious children who will be adversely impacted by a divorce. Most people delude themselves into believing “the children will be better off”. Suggest she read: The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study by Judith Wallerstein. She will read about the long term impact divorce has on children and their future relationships from a researcher who followed a group of children over 25 years after their parents divorced. A must read for anyone considering such a big decision.
I know I am asking you to “rock the boat” with your cousin and you may fear that she will be offended. It is a risk. I believe the future of marriage depends upon more people being willing to say, “I love you enough to risk offending you”.